June 10th, 2008
Another pointless brouhaha about drugs has erupted, this time between Wired magazine, the New York Times, and a reporter's blog. And what fueled all the noise was less than 300 words in a tiny chart — and an unexpected admission of past drug use. (Which in no way resembled the "Faces of Meth" public service ad pictured above.)
Reporter Mat Honan is a friend of mine, and he's not a drug addict, a street pusher, or even a very regular blogger. But he created a table of eight drugs which affect your thinking for last month's Wired — seven prescription or over-the-counter drugs, plus methamphetamine. And that's when the tabloid-esque headlines started.
"Is Wired Pushing Illegal Drug Use?" read one headline, linking to a New York Times article by reporter Lia Miller. In the Times' "Media and Advertising" section, she'd asked disingenuously "does Wired magazine really mean to promote drugs?" calling their eight-drug table "somewhat disarming."
"Do the Right Drugs," it recommends, laying out the pros and cons of eight drugs — some legal, some not — that it says can “boost your cognitive output."
Yes, Wired had tried to provoked interest in their table by including a 34-word introduction.
Brains + drugs = fried eggs, right? Not always.
But as the Times had obviously recognized, nearly all of the drugs listed were legal, including nicotine. (Wired noted it neurochemically increases attention and memory formation, while listing as its side effects "addiction, cancer, and social isolation.") And for the commonly-abused drugs, Wired listed side effects which might dampen the enthusiasm of recreational users. For Adderall, a popular black market prescription medication for ADHD, Wired listed as side effects "addiction" and also "heart attack," while for methamphetamine, the side effects included "stroke "and "death." "In the context, no one can seriously conclude that we are suggesting that Wired readers take these substances," Wired's managing editor, Bob Cohn, told the New York Times.
But the Times still insisted they weren't completely placated, arguing that "Given the magazine's cheeky writing style, that may be lost." Wired had apparently failed to be rigorous enough in their anti-drug posturing, even sardonically listing each of the eight drugs with a color code identifying "how to get it."
Buy from manufacturer
Tap black market
Fake illness to get prescription
Rather than a straight-out condemnation, Wired had simply issued a gentle reminder about personal responsibility. "We at Wired aren't doctors. Anyone who takes a bushel of drugs based on our say-so must be high."
"I should probably just let it go," Wired's reporter wrote on his personal blog, but the piece "is just such a hand-wringing piece of bullshit that I have to weigh in."
I don't quite get what the Times' position is, other than "Wired is suggesting you do meth!" Well, no. That wasn't the point at all. Let's look at some of the side effects I listed: "Parkinson's-like symptoms, addiction, stroke, psychosis, prison, death." Oh, hey, and in the "what it does" column, I also note "Prolonged use can also make you stupid and crazy." Does that sound like an endorsement to you?
I'll tell you one thing about Wired that I really appreciate: we don't assume our readers are idiots.
In defending the article, Wired's reporter shared a surprising level of straight talk.
Look, here's the thing: meth can help you focus and accomplish menial and creative tasks—just as is true of other amphetamines. It boosts dopamine output. Plain and simple. Does that mean it's worth doing? No...
Why, this may shock you, but here's the thing: Cocaine is exceptionally fun. LSD? It genuinely alters your perception. I'm not suggesting that you do either of these. Both conspired, unsuccessfully, to kill me and I would no more try either today than I would attempt to put a rattlesnake in my anus. I am older and wiser and recognize that the benefits are not worth the risks... Drugs, especially highly addictive ones like speed or cocaine or heroin or ones with powerful psychological components like LSD, tend to not be worth the price you pay for their use.
Soon Gawker had taken note of the blog post, giving it their own spin with the headline "Wired Drug Writer Has His Own Drug Expertise."
"It was a stupid controversy over a relatively innocuous drug story," Gawker began, saying "The Wired piece didn't deserve criticism for its content," but then adding: "it might have been served by some disclosure." Gawker ultimately supported Honan's position — albeit in a snarky way — though ironically, both Gawker's article and the New York Times' ended up being longer than Honan's original table.
"We'll never solve society's problems if we can't at least speak honestly about them," Honan had written on his blog. But in the end, the Times had simply led its readers through yet-another exercise in knee-jerk denunciations, and there was no discussion about drug policy whatsoever. When the Times article was linked from the Huffington Post, it drew just nine comments — three of which were about the site's pop-up ads.
But at least this time there was some justifiable media criticism online to go along with the faux outrage. One of Gawker's commenters jokingly asked what kind of high they'd get from putting a rattlesnake in their anus. "Is it a jumpy high, like cocaine, or a dancey, laughy high, like shrooms, or is it groovy, like LSD? Does anyone know where I could score a rattlesnake in midtown?"
And maybe the parody of the impressionability is the ultimate point. "I don't think Wired could influence anyone to take meth," Wired's managing editor had told the Times. Instead, one Huffington Post commenter objected only to the "underlying moral self righteousness" of the headline — "Is Wired Pushing Illegal Drug Use?" — as another suggested a strong rebuttal.
Obviously the answer is no.
Why the question??
Slow news day?
The New York Times did not return our request for a comment, meaning that the online community ultimately gets the last word. "[A]s long as we're shaming, maybe the New York Times should be ashamed of itself," Honan wrote on his blog, "for assuming we are a nation of six year olds who can't be spoken to honestly or trusted to make rational decisions."
And then he linked to a video by Bill Hicks, who more than 14 years ago had laid out the case against the media's over-simplified talking points — and maybe implicitly endorsed Wired's more honest tone about the real effects of drugs.
"Wouldn't that be newsworthy? Just once to base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstitions and lies? Just once?
"I think it would be newsworthy."
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